On the Trail: Sununu’s re-election bid takes flight

  • Gov. Chris Sununu filed for re-election on the last day of the state’s filing period for candidates to run for office in 2020.

For the Monitor
Published: 7/3/2020 2:42:42 PM
Modified: 7/3/2020 2:42:30 PM

Gov. Chris Sununu’s re-election campaign for a third-two year term steering New Hampshire is getting underway now that the coronavirus is loosening its grip on the state.

Last month the Republican governor from Newfields – without any fanfare – quietly filed to place his name on the ballot – on the last day of the state’s filing period for candidates to do so in the 2020 cycle.

But with the end of this year’s legislative session and tensions surrounding the virus easing, Sununu’s re-election bid is now starting in earnest. The governor’s longtime senior adviser Paul Collins and communications director Benjamin Vihstadt this week formally moved from the Corner Office to the campaign, as did deputy communications director Brandon Pratt.

The Sununu campaign told the Monitor that going forward, the governor will start doing a mixture of some in-person as well as virtual campaign events, just as some other Republican politicians in New Hampshire have been doing in recent weeks. They expect to see the governor get out of the State House with a bit more frequency, working in a combination of official and campaign events.

Sununu also this week sent out his first fundraising email to supporters since mid-March, when the coronavirus pandemic swept the nation. In the letter, the governor touted that “since March 11, I haven’t held a single fundraiser, sent a single campaign email, or made a single fundraising call. I simply haven’t had the time (or interest, frankly) in campaigning.”

The Sununu campaign told the Monitor it was the most successful fundraising email they’ve ever had. The governor confirmed the news in an interview with NH Journal and added “that was nice to see, because there’s a lot of folks out there who appreciate the leadership we’re providing.”

There’s been a scarcity of public opinion polling in New Hampshire this year, but the few surveys that are out there all give Sununu eye-popping numbers any politician running for re-election would love to have.

Sununu enjoyed a 77% approval rating in the most recent live telephone operator poll – conducted in mid-June by the Saint Anselm College Survey Center. Eighty-nine percent of Republicans, 79% of independents, and 62 percent of Democrats all gave him a thumbs up. And the governor’s favorable rating stood at 73 percent.

“The governor’s been a pretty present figure in everybody’s lives these past few months because of COVID-19 and I think he’s generally perceived to have done a pretty good job,” said Wayne Lesperance, one of the top New Hampshire-based political scientists. “He’s calm, he’s steady, he’s reassuring. Those are great adjectives for any elected official to have attached to their name and I think that the polls bear out that he’s done a pretty good job of things.”

Sununu has a campaign cash advantage and a very large name identification advantage over state Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes and Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky, the two Democrats gunning to challenge him in November’s general election.

“He’s a household name and his prospective opponents are not household names,” said Lesperance, the vice president of academic affairs at New England College in Henniker.

But Lesperance cautioned that “the big unknown right now are our budget gaps, shortage of funds for things, and whether or not New Hampshire sees a coronavirus surge similar to what’s occurring in many other states across the country and how he handles such developments.”

There’s another potential headache for Sununu – and that’s at the top of the ticket.

The president is facing challenging poll numbers with four months to go until election day, both nationally and in the crucial general election battleground states. New Hampshire is one of those states. Trump’s approval stood at 43% approval and 57% disapproval in the Saint Anselm poll.

New Hampshire Democrats have long tried to tie Sununu to the president, and with Trump’s poll numbers flagging, that will only intensify.

“In the midst of a pandemic that he’s mishandled, Sununu has shown he cares more about his political career than keeping Granite Staters healthy and alive. Sununu has parroted Trump by calling COVID-19 ‘the flu,’ has made New Hampshire the worst state in the nation for deaths in long-term care facilities as a share of total deaths, and got caught handing out no-bid contracts to political cronies and campaign contributors,” New Hampshire Democratic Party spokesman Michael Beyer charged.

If voters reject the president in November, the big question is whether they’ll also reject anyone who’s aligned with Trump. Sununu is close to the Trump administration and has a strong working relationship with Vice President Mike Pence. But he’s also not shy at times to point out his differences with the Trump White House.

“Distancing himself from the president but in doing so not alienating Republican that are very supportive of the president … is one of the hardest challenges the governor faces,” Lesperance said.

New Hampshire Institute of Politics Executive Director Neil Levesque noted that New Hampshire – like most states in the country – “is politically polarized and riven on the most talked-about issues of the moment.” But he spotlighted that “as the executive playing a highly-visible role in guiding our state through a major crisis, Governor Sununu has largely escaped the polarization.”

Granite Staters have shown they have no trouble splitting the ballot.

“New Hampshire voters will make a distinction between President Trump and Sununu, if for no other reason their styles in managing COVID-19 have been so different and I think that really works to the advantage of the governor,” Lesperance said.

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